Information Obesity: The web site

Resources for chapter 8: The Colonisation of the Lifeworld

8.1 Examples of colonisation

I mention three (on pp. 126-9 of Information Obesity):

  • Restrictions placed, whether by procedures, job descriptions or intellectual property rights, on the creativity of employees. This contributes to a level of "free-riding" when it comes to business organisations' using commons-based resources like open source software and a freely-available research literature. THINK: does your organisation so restrict your activity?
  • The public planning process, often used as a way to drive through undesirable developments (the examples mentioned in the text being nuclear plants and roads with major environmental impacts). These are characterised by a systematic distortion and denial of information to those opposing the developments, and judicial declarations which skew the supposedly impartial inquiry process in favour of developers.
  • "Instrumental progressivism", which, partly in the name of making education more "personalised" and "child-centred", has the consequence of demanding from teachers, pupils and parents more and more information - usually quantitative - about child performance, but in return, taking away autonomy from the local classroom setting and instead forcing all schools to conform to policies - and even minute details like lesson plans - created elsewhere and enforced through laws and financial sanctions.

THINK: Based on your reading of chapter 8, and the exploration of colonisation contained within, can you think of other examples from your own experience? What parts of your job or other activity are controlled or imposed "from above", whereas it might be possible (as the think task in chapter 7 explored) to develop them in a local setting in a more consensual way? What is the role of ICT in this?

Remember also, however, that Habermas does not see all instrumental rationality as undesirable. It is merely when the balance tips too far in its favour that the "pathologies" (problems) emerge - of which information obesity is one, as is alienation, anomie [hopelessness, apathy], cynicism and other such psychological issues. Nevertheless, think also about the other side of the question - what processes, in your opinion, should be so controlled or imposed? Why would they be too difficult or time-consuming to maintain at the activity system level?

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8.2 Course management systems

Remember what is said on p. 132 of Information Obesity

The trends being discussed seem so pervasive, so powerful, that “resistance is futile”. However, Habermas’s ideas have beauty and strength because they help us see actual instances of decolonisation, and determine the locations and the conditions under which colonisation might be reversible.... To establish what communities can do for themselves takes a shift in perception, challenging the ingrained assumption that modern life is too complex to be managed any way other than by hierarchical, instrumental organisations (see Blaug, 1999a, and Chapter 9).... Decolonising activities are not abstract or Utopian. They are a concrete series of practices based on principles of learning, participation, openness to different opinions and willingness to reach understanding: thus, educational.

At various points on this web site and in the book I refer to the work I have been undertaking with Dr. Angela Benson of the University of Alabama. We looked at 8 examples of online courses across 5 universities in both the UK and US. Course management systems or CMSs, like Blackboard and Moodle [in the UK these tend to be known as "virtual learning environments" or VLEs], are often considered examples of colonisation because they risk removing from teachers the ability to design their learning environments autonomously, and instead force them to conform to things like course templates and techniques for exploiting technologies which have been developed elsewhere. The values driving the development and introduction of CMSs are often not teaching-based, but are instead oriented to goals like improving a university's marketability to students, or (at the school level) conforming to dictates from government or host organisations regarding the use of ICT. (See also the third example in chapter 13 of IO.)

However, these systems can also be adopted by local actors for reasons that are explicitly linked to their goals and values. Benson & I saw several examples of this which included:

  • "ERD Online", a human resources development course run by a large US public university, which continued to develop and maintain its own home-grown CMS specifically because it wanted to retain control over the technological parameters of its course environment.
  • "E-TECH", an educational technology course run in the same college, which, partly because of its desire to be not only a focus of teaching expertise in ICT but also research it, and partly because of a "laissez-faire" management style (a value), encouraged its staff and faculty to freely experiment with different CMSs, providing technical support within the team.
  • "EFL-1", a course for teachers of English as a foreign language, in a large UK "Russell Group" university [a group of significant research-based universities], which was mandated by its host organisation to use WebCT, but found ways to "subvert" this at the local level. They gave the appearance of conforming to these procedural rules but in fact continued to operate at the local level in ways they had found, through their own experience, to be more effective.

So the issue of CMSs is not simply one of the increasing colonisation of university teaching. As I say in the conclusion of Information Obesity, we can continue to write the technologies which affect our lives, and can do so in ways that are both potentially decolonising, and also help combat information obesity. Each of these course teams has taken a conscious and largely consensual decision to work with CMSs in ways that retain within the team a level of cognition about the capabilities of the CMS and how it affects things like their goals, values and agreed ways of working. This does require a level of commitment and resources to be spent by team members, and it might indeed be easier to devolve to their various host universities this level of activity. However, each team ultimately believes this would be colonising and ultimately would result in a loss of understanding from the team's stock of knowledge, and an inability to subsequently critique future technological decisions made "on their behalf" (actually, made without their active participation).

Remember that in the end (IO, p. 129), "Colonisation... gives rise to a passive relationship to steering media [money and power] :and thus to the technologies, organisations, procedures, information and so on produced by these media." Decolonisation cannot just happen, but if communities are willing to spend certain amounts of resources, and engage in enquiry (double-loop learning) into the constraints and possibilities of the technologies - whether ICT-based or organisational - which affect their working practice, it can be asserted at the local level.

Goya's sleep of Reason image

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8.3 Goya's "Sleep of Reason" image [page 132]

"There is a double meaning in the image; that it is not only the denial of reason which produces 'monsters', but its passive, 'sleep-like' acceptance, and a lack of awareness of how 'reason' can turn into tyranny without constant vigilance over its potential dark side."

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